Upon first listen Brooklyn band Big Thief’s debut album Masterpiece might sound merely like a straightforward folk and rock n’ roll album, yet somehow they’ve become one of the most revered new acts of 2016.
What makes them so special is a sound that stands out without a definitive single song but their debut album’s overall completeness. It’s start to finish movement without gimmick or trend or even anything remotely hinting at a desire to fit in somewhere. Its just plain good and plays perfectly on long summer drives, sleepy Sunday mornings, and everything in between.
Its straightforwardness doesn’t make it simple, however. There are layers, textures, and a rollercoaster of emotions musically laid out on the album that when you start to peel away at it track by track you’ll realize how passionate and gut wrenching it is below the surface. Dig a little bit further into singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s story and you realize the 24-year-old has been preparing her whole life for this moment, and the only part that might she might be able to chalk up as luck or maybe more accurately fate was the day she met her guitar player and musical muse Buck Meek.
Lenker’s story in music begins in Minnesota where she was able to dabble into the world of music and in particular recording at a very young age. However, it would take a journey to Boston and a stint at Berklee for her to become a true musician confident enough to stake her claim in the indie rock world.
By the time she reached New York it would be safe to say she was equipped with all the tools required to be a singer, songwriter and crafty guitar player. Her voice expertly rides on the edge of vulnerable cracks while dictating lyrics and melody up and down the musical scale with ease. Her observational approach to songwriting describes the world she sees around herself one glance at a time, touching upon all the senses and detailing time and place.
Lenker is also noteworthy, and perhaps under appreciated until you see her live, as a crafty of a guitar player. Her control of the instrument while drawing feedback, playing intricate chord substitutions and overall tonal sound all offer proof that she more than knows her way around a six-string.
However, all of this preparation comes at a time when talent doesn’t necessarily mean success and finding a supporting cast to call your band and dive into the rigors of reckless early career touring doesn’t always come so easily. That was when fate stepped in.
Lenker’s musical partner Buck Meek’s backstory is one that parallels Lenker’s; their musical tastes and lust for the road the same. Meek’s off-kilter, piercing guitar licks and solos are the perfect juxtaposition to bring Lenker’s melodic and stirring vocals and lyrics to fruition.
In 2014 Lenker released a solo album called Hours Were the Birds, but it was A-Sides with Buck Meek that would solidify the potential of the their new musical relationship.
Shortly after, they were able to use the combination of the two early self-released records to do the second most important thing to them besides making music, travel and play shows. A year later, after recruiting drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Max Oleartchik to join them, they became a rock band called Big Thief and recorded their first record as a full band, completely on their own along Lake Champlain. This time the results were a little different. After sharing the video for the title track “Masterpiece”, buzz began and competition from interested indie labels ensued. Nebraska’s Saddle Creek, a label where the likes of Bright Eyes and Hop Along found homes, ended up winning over Lenker and company and upon its release became one of the most raved about records of the year.
Now, with the album finally out almost a year later, their lust for the road is on full throttle, which brings them to Boston this Tuesday on a boat cruise chartered by Boston Harbor Cruises with Providence’s Deer Tick at the helm. We were lucky enough to catch up with Lenker before the show to chat about her time spent in Boston, growing up as a musician in Minnesota, and most importantly the fateful day she met Buck Meek.
Allston Pudding: I guess I’ll be obvious and ask how did you and Buck initially meet?
Adrianne Lenker: Initially we met at this market the first day that I moved to New York. I was just moving my stuff in and I went over to this corner market called Mr. Kiwi and I saw him standing outside. I recognized him from Boston, although we had never formally met…because he played in a band in Boston that I would see around sometimes. The first day I moved to New York. Then we started playing songs together.
AP: When was the first moment you guys realized you had some great musical chemistry?
AL: We started out learning covers- playing John Prine songs, Michael Hurley songs, and just learning and singing songs together. I guess that’s when we realized it, just through hanging out and playing guitar in the park. It was just very natural to spend time making music together and that evolved into playing our own music together.
AP: You guys had to sit on Masterpiece for quite a while, how long ago was the album made?
AL: Well, we made it in July of last year and then it finally came out May 27th, after mixing and mastering and getting the vinyl pressed, which takes a little while these days. It’s been less than a year, almost a year, which is not that long relatively?
AP: Were the songs written long before that though?
AL: Some of them I wrote during the session. There was one that I wrote on the way to the session. There are few that I definitely wrote right around the time that we recorded so a lot of them are only like a year old. I guess the oldest one is maybe three years old. “Vegas” and “Paul” were some of the first ones written for that record.
AP: When you finished recording , was it something immediately that you knew you wanted to start shopping around to labels, or that you had a confidence in it that it would get picked up?
AL: No, we were kind of like…we had been booking our own shows for about three years. Buck and I had been touring as a duo before the band. Then we met our band mates and booking as much as possible and running everything ourselves. Up until Masterpiece we had just put records out through Bandcamp, just to release some stuff ourselves.
We didn’t really have a plan for this record. We were considering just releasing it ourselves, because we made it ourselves with our own resources. We brought a bunch of gear and borrowed some from friends. We brought it to this house near Lake Champlain and set up our own recording studio and all of us as friends and bandmates just made the record for very little. We thought there was a big possibility that we would just release it ourselves, but it just kind of happened that our minds were open to the possibility for finding a label, and it happened pretty naturally.
So at a certain point we were like “Yes, it would be a great idea to get support for this record.” We had just taken it as far as we could and, y’know, instead of having like five hundred people hear it, have like a few thousand people hear it. So once we learned and started studying about the business, because I didn’t really know anything, like what a publishing company for music was for or anything. I didn’t know about publicists and having an agent, and a label and a manager and all these people in different roles on a team. I’ve learned so much in the past year about it. I feel like we’re lucky that we found a really great crew.
AP: Were there labels competing for it? Was it just Saddle Creek or did you have to make a decision based on a bunch of interest from people?
AL: Yeah, it kind of happened where once one label showed interest we didn’t just jump on it right away because we had so many questions and we didn’t just want to sign onto something immediately. Over the course, we were contemplating this one label that was interested and asking a lot of questions and sort of taking our time, other offers definitely popped up and it was kind of weird. But yeah, we had to decide between a few; it was kind of a weird thing to have to do, because we were simultaneously learning. So we had to decide which would be the best home, the best fit for our record. All the labels were really sweet people so it was a hard decision.
AP: You mentioned spending some time in Boston at Berklee. How would you describe your time in Boston as a person and as an artist?
AL: I would say it was kind of felt like a big resting place for me, like a pause between the craziness of being a teenager and growing up and then going out into the world and trying to figure out how to live and survive. Being in college more than anything, more than just the curriculum, just being in Boston, living alone and learning how to live. Having the luxury of being able to just make music with people all the time and having that be my only focus while I was in Boston. I mean I had jobs — I worked at restaurants and stuff — but just having this heavy focus on just learning and creating and having an open time frame and space to have that be my only job. I was just constantly playing. I put a band together and just played and jammed. I did a lot of biking, man I had so much fun. I have a really soft spot in my heart for Boston. I lived in Jamaica Plain while I was there. It was great, I learned a lot about being a human being.
AP: I think I kind of discovered that you had some sort of experience being a kid pop star?
AL: I couldn’t really say I was a pop star. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that. I made music from the time when I was 13 onward and I did a couple of projects with my dad. Those are things, when you’re that age you’re just learning so much and the visions that you formed, my creativity, the difference between at that age and someone else was that I had all this support and backing for my music. So it became like a formally produced thing that exists now. But I still consider Hours of the Bridge, which is my first solo record when I moved to New York. I consider that to be my first record. But yeah, I grew up in recording studios and playing a lot and playing bars from that time I was 12 and doing open mic nights. Writing songs, hanging with a lot of older musicians and learning that way.
AP: Do you think that experience helped shape the way your write and play music today, like an antithesis of that?
AL: I don’t think about it that way. I don’t about it as wanting to be the opposite of that. I look at that as sort of my education and not really representing me creativity. But who looks at a drawing or a song they made when they were 13, 14, 15 and it represents them creativity? I look at it as basically my education. Getting to be in studios all the time and seeing how professional musicians worked and being in that creative environment and just getting a feel for it at a young age and getting the feeling of just walking around the city with my guitar and playing open mic nights. I’ve always known that this is what I’ve wanted to do but when I was sixteen I decided I wanted to go to school and slow things down a bit and then I kind of just started on my own as a woman, when I was 21 and moved to New York. And the day I moved to the New York was also the day I met Buck so that started the duo thing too.
AP: You’ve already toured a bunch before Masterpiece was out and are an incredibly tight live band. Was it important to you to play those songs out live before the record came out, to maybe build a reputation up before the record?
AL: Maybe more so before we recorded them. When we started playing the songs out live in front of people they change a lot and we wanted to tour the songs before recording them. So we did tour a good amount before recording Masterpiece, so when we did record them we basically just went in and played the songs. There so much a focus on touring a lot before the record came out to get tighter, but more so because we just wanted to be on the road. We just want to be on the road all the time, we just love doing it. It’s fulfilling.
Big Thief is supporting Deer Tick this Tuesday, July 19th on Boston Harbor Cruises. Tickets are $35 but you’re on a boat!